In “Kimi”, the new pandemic-era tech thriller from Steven Soderbergh, Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs, an employee of a Seattle tech company called Amygdala. She works from home as a voice stream interpreter, monitoring data streams recorded by the company’s premiere device Kimi. Kimi is a smart speaker similar to Amazon’s Alexa. But this one uses human monitoring to better tune the devices with their owners. It’s an understandably controversial practice that has put the company’s CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) on the defensive.
Angela suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety which was only made worse by the COVID-19 lockdown. Now she stays holed up in her apartment listening to her streams and watching the people in the apartment building across the street. She’s fond of a neighbor named Terry (Byron Bowers), but she can’t even bring herself to step outside and meet him at a nearby food truck much less go out on a date.
All of that sets the table for Soderbergh’s latest, his third consecutive movie to release straight to streaming on HBO Max. The script is by screenwriter David Koepp whose career is littered with some big hits and some big misses. Here Koepp keeps a tight focus, putting together a clever and engaging story that’s driven by a terrific lead performance from Kravitz. Meanwhile Soderbergh brings his usual technique and sense of style that fans of his have come to expect.
The story really kicks into gear after Angela overhears a potential violent crime on one of her data streams. She goes through the proper channels and tries to report it to her bosses. But with the company set to hold an initial public offering, a huge scandal could cost Hasling millions of dollars. So upper management is in no rush to draw unwanted attention. But Angela digs deeper, and with the help of her Romanian tech colleague Darius (Alex Dobrenko), she uncovers something that Amygdala will go to any length to keep hidden.
The movie has two very different halves, but they come together seamlessly under Soderbergh’s direction. The first half is very much a character drama, and it puts a heavy focus on Angela and her struggles. Soderbergh and Kravitz do a good job in these early scenes of defining Angela for us. Soderbergh also does a great job making it feel very much like a film of our current time. Face masks, hand sanitizer, references to quarantine, etc. all will be looked at in years to come as a reminder of the challenges to normalcy all of us have faced.
The second half is when the film’s thriller element amps up. It’s also where we see most of Soderbergh’s creativity both with sound and the camera. There are certain tricks that really stand out and work well. Such as running certain scenes at a slightly higher speed or slyly tilting the camera an unusual angle. Both add a tense and disorienting feeling to specific moments in the story.
While its ending nearly comes unglued, Soderbergh keeps it together in large part due to the rooting interest we have in Angela. The film’s commitment to fully developing her into a character we care about pays dividends in the final 15 minutes as the movie goes full genre nuts. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to liking how this thing ends. It’s a fitting finish to a movie that immersed, entertained, and surprised me throughout. “Kimi” is now streaming on HBO Max.